At a pair of meetings held last week,
The Air Force has struck a deal with the state to lease sections of Tate’s Hell as part of its Gulf Regional Airspace Strategic Initiative (GRASI), a plan to relieve Eglin Air Force Base’s crowded airspace by expanding military training operations to the Tate’s Hell and
In the third of a series of meetings with Eglin representatives, residents from across the county took issue with an environmental impact statement (EIS) that contends training in Tate’s Hell would not affect the environment. The EIS was prepared by Leidos, a private defense contractor that works extensively with the Department of Defense.
“Leidos assesses the potential impacts, gathering information from the Air Force, State of Florida and other sources,” according to Air force spokesman Mike Spaits. “The Air Force interdisciplinary team from Eglin, AFCEC and Headquarters Air Force then reviews and edits the document to prepare it for release.”
Lt. Col. Lynn Watkins presided over the meetings, which drew about two dozen attendees at each meeting, June 3 in Carrabelle and June 4 in
State Forester Jim Karels opened the session by announcing that, while he would not comment, he was observing the proceedings for the Florida Forest Service, which will make the ultimate decision about how Tate’s Hell can be used.
Eglin spokesmen Tom Tolbert and Mike Spaits read aloud portions of the EIS, followed by three-minute statements from attendees. Although the time limit was strictly enforced, some speakers were given extra time by members of the audience who ceded them minutes.
The EIS offers two alternatives for GRASI: Use of Tate’s Hell or no expansion of the exercise area.
At the Carrabelle meeting, Bruce McCormack, CEO of Gulf Unmanned Systems Center (GUSC), said there is an alternative venue for war games. He said military groups, including Eglin, have used a 90,000-acre tract of privately owned land near Blountstown since 1999. GUSC would administer the lease of the available land using employees working in
No ‘significant beneficial or adverse impacts’
According to the EIS, the Air Force “has not identified any significant beneficial or adverse impacts associated with the proposed action. While the Air Force has identified the potential for adverse impacts to various resources, these impacts would be insignificant.”
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reviewed the EIS and will give their final decision after the public comment period is completed, said Air Force officials.
At the two meetings last week, a number of commenters disagreed, many expressing concern over the effects of noise pollution.
Jim Cummins of Alligator Point spoke out at the Carrabelle meeting. Cummins is a retired board certified engineer in noise engineering with 45 years of experience in environmental acoustics and industrial noise control. He said he was puzzled by the way sound pollution was measured in the EIS and said the techniques used were inappropriate.
He said the EIS assumes normal sound levels in the forest are too high. “Understand that the forest is very quiet. While wind can cause (an increase in noise), we typically perceive these sounds as soothing. The sound of a gunshot is akin to being hit over the head with a mallet,” Cummins said.
He said that abrupt sounds like explosions travel a longer distance than steady noise of the same intensity.
Cummins said the amount of noise produced by aircraft flying below 1,000 feet is “above the prescribed OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) limit for hearing loss. Soldiers exposed to these levels will have permanent hearing loss without ever being in combat.”
Cummins said that even the noise from aircraft operating at 10,000 feet exceeds the EPA limit for acceptable sound levels in a community.
“In most cases the proposed use is inappropriate to the area and will cause damage to the area and annoyance to the community,” he said.
Sound pollution a big concern
Sound pollution was also a concern for environmental guide Serge LaTour. He brought a video to Carrabelle’s meeting showing the effect of a flyover by two helicopters on Tate’s Hell wildlife.
He was not allowed to present it in the meeting, but was able to set up a demonstration in another room. The scene is peaceful with ambient noise from birds and insects. When the aircraft pass overhead, the sound was deafening. Following the aircraft, the forest is completely silent.
“When communication shuts down, life in the swamp shuts down,” LaTour said. “The disturbance after that simple flyover lasted hours. We all assumed you wouldn’t be doing anything during hunting season. There’s not going to be anything left there to hunt after you guys finish.”
Betty Cummins, of Alligator Point, said the temporary placement of razor wire along roads would endanger free-ranging animals such as bears and deer. She worried that animals, spooked by loud noise and unusual activity in the swamp, might become entangled in the wire.
LaTour also expressed concern about frightened animals leaving the area of the games.
“Where are the bears going to go?” he asked. “We already have a problem with nuisance bears. The bears (fleeing from the military exercises) will be displaced, scared, angry and disoriented. They’re going to be in the streets.”
Mark Nobles, manager of Carrabelle’s Thompson field, said due to a lack of radar coverage and limitations on communications, he did not believe existing civilian air traffic could safely share the air space over Tate’s Hell with the proposed military air traffic flying at speeds of 250 to 600 mph.
“Our objection to your planned usage is not in any measure a reflection of our patriotism,” he said. “I proudly served in the US Marine Corps and have the utmost respect for our young men and women who serve our country today. It is also in concern for their safety during these training exercises that I point out major deficiencies in your plan. “
Nobles also worried about the economic impact on the county. “Tate’s
A surprise speaker in Carrabelle was Sue Early, who said she lives on the Wakulla side of the
“I respectfully request that a workshop be held in
One of the last speakers in
“I’ve worked mighty hard to keep this a rural area and make sure everybody realizes what we have. I don’t want to see it messed up because, once it’s messed up, you can’t get it back,” she said. “Leave Tate’s Hell alone. We don’t want you here except to visit.”